How I (and Many Better Players) Prepare for a Poker Tournament

Gamblers Sitting Around a Poker Table with the words Poker Tournament Written Above

I’ve played in hundreds of poker tournaments ranging from the small buy-in affairs with 30 players in Oklahoma to the most significant events in the world featuring thousands of competitors.

Regardless of the size of the field, most players get incredibly nervous before a poker tournament. Believe me, I still get excited before a tournament, big or small.

Luckily, I’ve discovered an excellent system for preparing myself for the occasion. By getting in the best condition physically and mentally, you’re on the right track to performing your best.

Poker tournaments can bring a substantial influx of cash to a gambler’s bankroll. Make the most of every opportunity by preparing like a pro.

Here’s how I, and many much better players, prepare for a poker tournament.

Don’t Strive for Perfection

No matter the intense effort you put forth or how many different aspects of the game you try to cover, there’s no way to perfect your tournament routine.

If you’re successful, you’ll constantly be tweaking and improving your technique. The wonderful thing about tournament preparation is that it’s different for everyone.

So, what works for one poker player, may not be the ideal approach for another. Don’t let that fact discourage you.

That merely means that you’ll be taking bits and pieces of successful preparation techniques and making them fit your personal preferences.

If you get caught up in perfecting your efforts, you’ll miss out on the joys of tournament poker.

Strive for perfection at the tables. I can attest to the elusive nature of perfection; it rarely comes.

I’ve never been perfect, but I’ve made a few solid runs and taken wins.

Set Realistic Goals

I’ve never encountered a successful poker player that isn’t goal-oriented. You need to set goals both long-term and short-term in your poker career.

An example of a solid goal might be to win your first poker tournament at the local casino. I would consider this a realistic goal.

Suppose you’ve never played in a poker tournament and set out to win your first WSOP bracelet. In that case, your ambitions don’t align with your ability.

Venetian Las Vegas Poker Room

Once the tournament begins, you’ll need to make short-term goals to make it into the money. You may want to start by making it to the first break for smaller events or staying alive until day two for more significant events.

You’ll continuously shift your goals depending on how the event is running, but don’t place your emphasis on winning the event until you’re at the final table and the field begins to dwindle.

Your Plans Will Hurt You

Players that don’t adequately prepare themselves mentally for the unpredictable nature of poker are doomed to fail.

I frequently run into players that believe they know precisely how their tournament will go. They plan to come out of the gates hot and ride that chip lead to the final table by bullying the competition with their massive chip stack.

That’s a plan, but an ineffective one. In fact, these types of plans will do more harm than good. Many players will begin to crumble when they don’t immediately jump out in front of the rest of the field.

Don’t panic. If you set intermediate goals for the event, you’ll understand that poker is a marathon and not a sprint.

Accordingly, you should avoid making any grandiose plans for how you’ll perform. Stick to your goals, and you’ll perform much better than players that have a plan for how the unpredictable game will unfold.

Get Your Diet Right

Poker tournaments are demanding. You’ll regularly see days that keep you at the poker table for 12 hours or longer.

That type of marathon poker play requires peak mental acuity and all the energy you can muster. The type of fitness that requires you to focus intensely on a proper diet.

If you’re absorbing food that’s high in sugar, you’ll become weak and tired over the long haul. You’re going to want foods high in the nutrients that fuel the entire body.

You also don’t want to find yourself starving an hour into the tournament. So, a light salad may sound like a great option, but unless you throw some protein on top, you’re doing a disservice to yourself.

Large Spread of Breakfast Foods

I like to have a large healthy meal the night before a tournament and follow that up with a breakfast full of fruits and granola. However, it’s okay if you from your own meal plan.

Start paying attention to how you’re eating ahead of tournaments, and you’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel throughout the day.

It should go without saying, but you need to limit the alcohol to zero. Alcohol will decrease your inhibitions and lower your cognitive skills.

That’s a deadly combination at the poker table.

Stay Busy or Chill?

When focusing on tournament preparation, the most significant point of contention seems to be on how to unwind before the event.

There are really two available options; you either stay busy or chill and relax.

Staying busy before a tournament usually involves some kind of exercise. Some players will hit the gym or go for a run before an event.

Many players take the chill approach to tournaments. They spend their day in the spa getting a relaxing massage or merely lay around watching their favorite movies.

I prefer to combine the two; a casual round of golf keeps me outdoors and getting some exercise while allowing me to relax and unwind before the big day.

Whether you choose to stay busy or chill, once you’ve found the one you prefer, try to remain as consistent as possible.

Dress for the Occasion

Many new tournament players fail to account for the conditions inside the casino’s poker room. I’ve played in events where I was nearly sweating through my shirt, and I’ve been almost frozen out several times.

You’ll want to dress in layers for the tournament. That will allow you to shed clothes as things begin heating up but also keep you comfortable during the times when the casino lives up to its reputation of being a frigid place.

You also want to look good; I’m a firm believer that when you look good, you play good.

Guy Wearing Suit Adjusting His Watch

Some players will tend to try to mix it up before a tournament. They may elect to incorporate sunglasses or other masking techniques.

This tactic may work for some players, but you may be highly uncomfortable if you’re not used to this type of apparel.

Trigger the Mechanism

Earlier I mentioned how I like to play golf and eat a particular breakfast ahead of a tournament. This routine keeps me relaxed for the upcoming event.

It also does something of equal importance; it lets my body know that we have some business to attend to shortly.

The exact nature of your approach to triggering the mechanism is something you’ll need to decide for yourself. Whatever the key is, you’ll need to be able to repeat it many times before tournaments to get your body and mind ready for competition.

Be Patient

Taking your time is paramount to enjoying your tournament experience. You don’t have to base your success in the early stages of your tournament poker career on wins.

Ideally, you should constantly be striving to make the cash. However, sometimes the harsh lessons learned by getting beat up at the tables can be as valuable as cash.

Never rush to make decisions during tournaments. You’ve paid your buy-in like every other competitor and should get the most of the experience.

Texas Holdem Four of a Kind

Nor should you hasten your exit when the chips begin to dwindle away. You’ll gain much more insight in the long-term by holding on for dear life.

Besides, you never know when another short stack might make a run for glory and get knocked out to put you in the cash.

Be patient in your tournament approach, and you’re going to be more successful than the hasty players.


Now that you’ve adequately taken steps to prepare for the event, it’s time to execute. How you perform will be primarily based on your ability.

Poker is a skill-based game, and no matter how much you prepare, there may be better players in the field.

The more prepared player will always perform to a higher standard, almost without exception than unprepared opponents of similar ability.

Imagine the NFL for a moment. If the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay played a college team, the Bucs win 100 out of 100.

However, if they play the Chiefs again and forgo any type of prep work before the contest, the Chiefs almost certainly beat the unprepared champs.

So, preparation won’t cover up poor poker ability; you’ll need to get your game in order. Fortunately, practice can give you the necessary edge to start slaying your rivals in poker.

Our Final Words of Encouragement

Now that you have gained practical insight into how I prepare for a poker tournament, it’s time to work on setting your own routine. You should take bits from different patterns and craft yours to an individual level.

The players that can learn a preparation technique that works will ultimately see their overall poker results improve dramatically. That WSOP bracelet may be closer than you imagine.